Four U.S. Navy destroyers armed with land-attack cruise missiles are positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea as President Barack Obama considers ordering attacks on Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians.
Pentagon officials said the naval power includes the guided missile destroyers USS Ramage, USS Mahan, USS Gravely, and USS Barry. At least one missile-firing submarine is also said to be in the region. Britain also reportedly has dispatched a missile-firing submarine to waters near Syria.
Potential targets of the strikes include chemical weapons sites and artillery rocket units.
The strategic intelligence firm Stratfor, in a military analysis of Syria options, said the Pentagon could use U.S.-based strategic bombers and B-1 bombers based at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar for strikes.
“In such an operation, the United States would be able to carry out standoff attacks beyond the range of Syrian air defenses, while B-2 bombers could stealthily penetrate the Syrian integrated air defense network to drop bunker-busting bombs with minimal risk,” the analysis states.
Two U.S. aircraft carriers are days away from being within range of Syria and the Air Force is capable of surging warplanes to the region at air bases in Turkey, Greece, Jordan, and Cyprus, Stratfor said.
Meanwhile, United Nations inspectors investigating the chemical weapons attacks were fired on by snipers in Syria on Monday, an indication the government in Damascus is trying to impede the probe.
The U.S. military preparations come as governments in Europe said Monday they would support armed intervention in Syria. Spokesmen for the British, French, German, and Turkish governments said their governments favor military action against the Syrian government.
Russia’s government, which is backing the Assad regime, announced it is opposing a military strike. China’s government also said it favors a non-military solution to the Syrian civil war that has claimed at least 100,000 lives. Iran too also said it opposes armed intervention.
A Syrian official, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, told regional media that U.S. military intervention in Syria would cause “a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East.”
According to U.S. officials, the main option being considered is a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles directed at suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites, military bases, and leadership facilities.
Last week, Free Syrian Army Commander Salim Idris, told Al Jazeera that the Syrian government used surface-to-air missiles armed with chemical weapons in the attack. The missiles were fired from Al Mazzah Military Airport, the major airfield outside Damascus that is expected to be a key target in any future bombing campaign.
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a harsh statement Monday condemning the Bashar Assad regime for failing to cooperate with the investigation of the nerve gas attack, saying the use of the arms was a “moral obscenity.”
Kerry said the obstruction is an indication the Syrian government was behind the deadly nerve gas attack that reportedly killed some 1,400 people. Damascus “maintains custody of these chemical weapons,” Kerry said.
“The president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons,” Kerry said, adding that Obama believes there must be “accountability” for the use of the deadly arms.
According to U.S. officials, Syrian opposition forces first reported the chemical attacks Aug. 21 during heavy fighting by government forces against rebel-held areas east of Damascus called Ghouta, an agricultural belt around Damascus.
The attacks reportedly took place in the Ghouta towns of Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Tarma as well as in Muadhamiya to the west.
Video of the attacks showed violent deaths associated with the use of nerve agent.
Kerry said the U.S. government is compiling a dossier on the chemical weapons use and would present its findings publicly in the coming days. Such an assessment likely would be the first step in the process of taking military action.
Key members of Congress on Monday called for congressional approval before any strikes. “I hope they come to Congress for an authorization at some point,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.).
Top Pentagon officials are urging limited military strikes to avoid triggering a spread of the conflict to other states in the region. There are also concerns that Iran, which is backing the Assad regime, could order retaliatory attacks through proxy forces like Hezbollah.
Jordan’s government, in particular, is said to be concerned that it will face retaliatory attacks for its role in hosting U.S. warplanes and a headquarters element for the U.S. military.
The U.S. Central Command currently operates a forward command post in Amman staffed by several hundred troops. Some 1,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Jordan, along with a squadron of F-16 jets and Patriot anti-missile batteries. The facilities would be used if the United States decided to set up a no-fly zone over Syria.
Syria’s military also could conduct air strikes on Jordan in retaliation for U.S. and allied strikes.
Other potential problems from armed intervention include the prospect that Islamist rebel groups will eventually dominate Syrian rebels forces and later take control of Syria.
Israel’s government has played down recent threats to its territory resulting from a military intervention in Syria. However, reports from the region indicate Israel is braced for possible missile attacks from Syria, an increase in rocket attacks by Hezbollah, and a possible surge in Hezbollah terrorism against Israeli targets.
Obama is said to be under pressure to take military action from key advisers who supported so-called “humanitarian interventions” in the past, such as the operation in Libya. U.S. forces played an indirect but decisive role in neutralizing Libyan military forces in that conflict.
The pro-intervention advisers include U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is said to be more neutral toward military strikes and Gen. Martin Dempsey also is urging caution.
U.S. military operations against Syria were outlined in a July 19 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee from Gen. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A likely scenario for intervention will include a combination of two options presented by Dempsey: A scaled-down version of the an option described as “Conduct limited stand-off strikes” along with a plan to “Control Chemical Weapons.”
The stand-off strike option “uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself,” he said.
Targets for limited stand-off strikes include “high-value” military facilities, such as air forces, ground, missile, and naval forces, and command centers.
“Standoff air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing,” Dempsey said.
Force required for the stand-off attacks include “hundreds” of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers” and depending on the length of the operations could cost in the “billions” of dollars, he said.
The objective of the strikes would be to weaken the Assad regime’s military capabilities and also to increase desertions.
To withstand the attacks, the regime could disperse its military forces. “Retaliatory attacks are also possible and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country,” Dempsey said.
The option targeting chemical weapons was initially designed to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical arms.
“We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and security program components,” Dempsey said.
The option called for imposing a “no-fly zone” backed by hundreds of missile strikes, along with thousands of special operations troops and ground forces that would “assault and secure” chemical arms sites. Cost for the operations would be over $1 billion per month.
“The impact would be to control some but not all chemical weapons,” the four-star general stated. “It would also prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups.”
A fairly large-scale intervention with hundreds of troops and large numbers of patrolling aircraft is said to be an option the Pentagon is not recommending.